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Startup Class Unites Student Companies with Industry Mentors

students sit around a table with Bob Metcalfe

Students from Metcalfe's 1 Semester Startup class attend a "speed dating" session. The event was designed to help match up students and mentors.

With students wedged into every empty space, Cockrell School of Engineering's Professor of Innovation Bob Metcalfe addressed a packed classroom in Robert Lee Moore Hall, setting the tone on the first day of his new class, 1 Semester Startup.

"We share the start-up theme with many," Metcalfe said, as he projected a vintage photo of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak working in the Jobs' family garage (circa. 1975). Metcalfe, the Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise, shared words of wisdom with the students such as: "Invention is a flower. Innovation is a weed. It's out to kill you."

1SemesterStartup is an undergraduate course offered to engineering, computer science and business majors, and is designed to give students the resources, direction and inspiration needed to start their own companies.

The class is being taught by Metcalfe, John Butler, director of the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship and professor at the McCombs School of Business, and Josh Baer, specialist in the UT Computer Science Department and professional "Austinpreneur." The objective of the trilogy team is to reinforce the importance of breaking down silos across the university's colleges and schools that may inhibit innovation.

Metcalfe explained to students his theory on what constitutes an ideal ecosystem for nurturing new business. It not only includes research professors and graduate students to help the scaling entrepreneurs, but also critical connections to venture capitalists, angel investors, strategic partners and early adopters.

It is these critical connections that have established the role of mentors in the course. Mentors counsel the teams — which have organized themselves into small groups to work on a business idea — about funding opportunities, scale, viability and projected success.

Following Metcalfe's introduction to the course, Baer gave students a pep talk on how to utilize their mentors. He told students persistence is a key ingredient of a successful entrepreneur. "You just have to keep asking for help and guidance until someone finally tells you no," he said.

"I honestly didn't know what to expect (after the first class)," said 1SemesterStartup student Mariel Bolhouse, a senior in biomedical engineering. "Since then we have formed our teams and started meeting with our mentors. What is clear to me is that we have access to some great resources, but we (the students) have to do all the work on developing our businesses."

As Professor of Innovation, Metcalfe has been charged with teaching an innovation course, as well as creating a more entrepreneurial culture among faculty, and creating stronger ties between the university and the vibrant climate of start-ups.

Bolhouse came to the class with a business she developed with colleagues that is currently in the licensing stage. The technology focuses on isotope separation that will allow for the production of cleaner, greener nuclear fuel.

"Last year I took Dr. Steve Nichols' Engineering Entrepreneurship course which was a great introduction to the entrepreneurship process," she said. "The course offered lots of oversight and direction. 1SemesterStartup is a natural next step which assumes that students bring to the course entrepreneurial experience."

During the first class students had to stand up and give a one-minute videotaped impromptu pitch. The objective was to sell themselves as potential valuable team members — one of the many new challenges these students will confront in the coming months.

Another aspect of the course is the opportunity to meet and interact with technology legends. Two speakers have been scheduled for the fall, including Frank Moss, former CEO of Tivoli and director of the MIT Media Lab, in September and Michael Dell of Dell Inc., who will speak in November. These events will be open to all university students.

The class culminates Dec. 1 with a "Demo Day," when each student group will present their business ideas and plans to an audience of potential investors and interested entrepreneurs.